torsdag 18 oktober 2012

Books I've read lately

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I read the three books below right before the summer (≈ May-June). I have already written about the books I read during the summer in two separate blog posts (1, 2) and so while I still have some more catching up to do, the next books I write about will in fact have been read "recently" - i.e. during the autumn term. 

The three books below constitute a series of sorts about computer culture, computer history and computers in a societal context and all three books touch or focus on the 1960's and the 1970's and the parallels between the emergence of a computer culture and a counter-culture. 

I started to read John Markoff's "What the dormouse said: How the 60s counterculture shaped the personal computer industry" (2005) already in 2008, but for some reason I put it aside after reading 80 pages. These things sometimes happened (before I structured up my book-reading habits) and so now I chose to pick it up again and read it from the beginning to the end. It was an easy read, but unfortunately the least interesting of these three book. Markoff has interviewed a lot of people who where around at the time (1960's, 1970's), but the book is primarily of interest to people who were around at the time. It is filled with stories about this and that, but there is little analysis and it's difficult to know what to make of the book beyond noting that person X said/did/programmed/met person Y and Z happened in a long string of events. What is the relevance of these events beyond noting that they happened then and there? I don't know, but to Markoff himself the book is about:

"the extraordinary convergence of politics, culture and technology that took place in a period of less than two decades and within the space of just a few square miles. Out of that convergence came a remarkable idea: personal computing."

A much more thorough and more theoretically astute treatment of the same period and the same phenomena is Fred Turner's "From counterculture to cyberculture: Steward Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the rise of digital utopianism" (2006). Beyond a much deeper and more interesting treatment of the intersection between 1960's computer and political culture, Turner also traces the trajectory of the resulting ideas forward in time to our day and age. Turner sees Steward Brand as an iconic networker who moves between different communities and cultures (counterculture, cyberculture, capitalist culture), lines them up and puts them in contact with each other and each other's ideas and then profits from his centrality in the resulting network when Things Start To Happen. There was nothing that bonded "New Communalists" with hackers until Stewart Brand lined them up and (in some mysterious way) made them share the same vision of the role of computers in society. He later lined up the resulting computer (counter-)culture (i.e. the WELL) with companies and commercial interests (i.e. Shell), resulting in (for example) the Global Business Network consulting firm and Wired Magazine. Turner's book is an archeology of ideas, people and (social) movements moving through time as currents of water forming lager currents and sometimes splitting up. 

The last book in this blog post is Richard Barbrook's "Imaginary futures: From thinking machines to the global village" (2007). I have to say that the book differed quite a lot from what I expected after having read some of Barbrook's shorter academic texts (like "The Californian ideology" - criticizing the neo-liberal politics of Wired Magazine). I thought it would be similar to Turner's book, tracing how ideas about and around computers have influenced each other and changed over time. To some extent it was, but it was also partly a personal story that starts at the upbeat future-, space- and consumption-oriented 1964 New York World Fair. The picture on the book cover in fact depicts that author at the fair as a young boy together with his mother and baby sister. The major part of the book is about the cold war battle between (in the right corner:) US/capitalism and (in the left corner) the SU (Soviet Union)/communism, and where the price is (the idea of) the future, and the heart and minds of people in developed and developing countries in the 1960's and 1970's. Who would "own" the idea of the future? Which superpower/ideology could present the most attractive (and credible) future? It might seem obvious in retrospect that the US/the West/capitalism would win that fight, but it really wasn't at the time and the book treats the hard work behind the make-over of capitalism from a heartless ideology with little sympathy for the common man (workers), through space, science fiction and not the least computer imagery, into a cool and sexy ideology promising access to (among other things) the promised land of unlimited consumption.

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